There is a common assumption that life is a virtue, that the mere state of existence is something to be cherished, prolonged and assiduously safeguarded. Facebook and Pinterest posts offer us “5 Tips for Living Longer” and “12 Tricks to Be Healthy.” Gatorade reminds us “Life’s a sport. Drink it up,” and Coca-Cola that “Life tastes good,” while Red Bull “vitalizes body and mind” and Walgreens sits “at the corner of happy and healthy.” Repeated interactions with family, friends and media reinforce this message that longevity and health just are important.
Yet a closer examination calls this assumption into question. In her book New Demons, philosopher Simona Forti denounces the desire to maximize life, pointing to writers like Hannah Arendt, who “emphasize[d] that any ethical discourse must assume life is not the highest good for mortals,” (198), and the ancient Greeks, who believed “a life that is never put at risk for something higher is practically unworthy of being lived,” (199). A few examples may help to elucidate these counterarguments.
We also tend to think of virtue as requiring some effort; one must try to be compassionate, honest, strong, wise and just. While effort is required to live well, the same type and standard of effort don’t seem necessary to simply live. Under normal circumstances, we don’t try to breathe, sleep or keep our hearts beating, and the acts of eating and drinking don’t appear to be praiseworthy.
Furthermore, life will inevitably end, a trait atypical to other virtues (aside from their attachment with human death). It would be odd to say that honesty is a virtue, meaning that one should strive to be honest, while at the same time admitting that all that truth-striving will ultimately prove futile. What’s the point of saying one should act a certain way while also granting that same action is impossible to do?
The attempt to moralize existence comes to the forefront in the modern health movement and its corresponding backlash. When pared down to their essence, basic wellness incitements like “Eat vegetables!” and “Exercise!” start to look a lot like “Be healthy!” and “Live!” It should come as no surprise that an easy and convincing riposte follows the lines of 1) I am alive, 2) I hate vegetables and the gym, and 3) I fail to see the advantages of your advocated life of things that make me miserable.
In a recent column in The Guardian, author Mark Greif of “Against Exercise” fame further articulates the hollowness of inducements to longevity:
“Health, exercise, food, sex have become central preoccupations of our time. We preserve the living corpse in an optimal state, not so we may do something with it, but for the feeling of optimisation. More and more of life gets turned over to life maintenance at the very moment you’d think we’d be free to pursue something else.”
So living itself cannot be what we are after if we wish to persuade others of the benefits of longevity and physical virtues. The reason you ought not to kill me is not the fact that I will then cease to live, but that my desires, pleasures and dreams will cease along with my life. Likewise, the reason to live longer cannot be to win some existence marathon but to exercise those same desires, pleasures and dreams. Preston Sprimont does especially well to separate existence from the positive experience of existence in distinguishing surviving versus thriving:
“We ought to seek pleasure and accomplishment in our existence. Instead of settling for not quite dying today or tomorrow, we should establish feeling alert and energized every morning, thinking clearly, performing well, sleeping easily, and improving consistently as our standards of living.”
While Sprimont, like Grief, points to the optimization of existence, Sprimont distinguishes thriving as promoting pleasure and achievement. The benefit of life is that we have the opportunity to enjoy our experiences, activities and relationships and help others enjoy the same. In this vein, longevity itself is not a virtue but a vehicle to do (more of) what we love and what is important to us. Whether you prefer a life of personal pleasure, one of constant charity toward others or something in the middle, living longer and healthier will allow you to get more out of your passion, both in quantity and quality. By the same token, living a long, healthy life devoid of any other joys, triumphs and good deeds is a colossal waste of a lifetime.In short, our primary goal should not be to prolong life but to live a life worth prolonging. We should not concern ourselves with either merely or optimally surviving, but with finding a purpose in life and constructing an existence that supports that purpose. Life is not a virtue, merely an accessory to a virtuous existence.
In short, our primary goal should not be to prolong life but to live a life worth prolonging. We should not concern ourselves with either merely or optimally surviving, but with finding a purpose in life and constructing an existence that supports that purpose. Life is not a virtue, merely an accessory to a virtuous existence.